I never thought I would write a blog, but I feel incredibly passionate about understanding what makes women tick. How do they define success and what does it feel like?
So when I decided to to interview successful Australian women and hear their stories – there was one person who was already having an influence in my life.
That woman is Karen Gee.
If you’ve never heard of Karen, she is an Australian fashion designer who specialises in custom made pieces for the modern woman.
I’d describe her style as chic work wear, but there’s no limit to these designs.
She was kind enough to give me 30 minutes of her time while she was in Brisbane for a showcase. (I did also sneak in a styling session to pick up a few new pieces for myself.)
My plan was to ask a series of questions and give you her responses, but we share a mutual love of wanting to empower women, so our chat flowed without too much structure.
Here’s what I learnt about Karen Gee..
Karen is 43 years old. She was raised in Rockhampton by entrepreneurial parents who always ran successful businesses.
She’s been married for 22 years to husband Andrew. Together they have 5 kids – yes 5 – 4 boys and one girl.
She launched her fashion label on Logies night in 2013. She dressed Home and Away star Demi Harman in a sleek, structured white gown. That was the beginning of a wild ride. “Our whole website crashed because everyone was hitting it. That was my first big thing.”
From there she went on to dress the likes of Melissa Doyle as the host of Channel 7’s Sunrise. During Mel’s last week on the show she wore Karen Gee everyday. Yep, everyday. I’m talking Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and her final ever Friday.
“That was a month and a half into launching this brand. So she’s certainly been a big part of this growth.”
But you don’t need to be a celebrity to wear Karen Gee.
“It gives me just as much joy… there was a woman who was a size 18 or 20. She came in and was in tears and she said no one can dress me because I’m big and I feel fowl. And I said – watch me. So we put something together. And she was just in tears, she said no one has ever made me feel that good.”
But there’s no denying Karen’s success on screen. The structure and colour of her dresses make them perfect for on air.
Now the American market has come calling.
You might have heard of this little news organisation called Bloombergs? Well their head stylist has heard of Karen Gee!
“She contacted me and said… no one does what you do. So we’ve come to you in Australia.”
Now she’s dressed all the top female anchors in New York, has just received a huge order for their Hong Kong talent and will soon dress their London presenters as well.
On the day we met, the Queensland Premier, Annastasia Palaszczuk also requested an hour of Karen’s time to discuss arranging some custom made pieces. "The woman that called said, 'for her to give you and hour, she must think you’re ok.'”
So why is her business so successful?
First of all – her business model is very different to most other fashion designers.
“You pay for your dress first before we even start it. So my cash flow has never ever been a problem. Where people run into problems is they might be great designers but they haven’t got a lot of business sense and that’s where I am very good because that’s all I know, that’s what I was brought up to do.”
She’s been approached countless times by retail giants, but refuses to become a sell-out.
“If I went into a department store I’d be jeopardising the reputation of the brand in terms of customer service. I would go in at Christmas and things could be thrown on the floor. So do I want to do that? Do I want to commercialise Karen Gee? Probably not.”
But when you boil it down, there’s one thing that sets this brand apart.
“People come to us because of customer service, and if you generalise it you damage the brand. Things would go on sale and I never go on sale, because I don’t want someone to custom make a dress and then seeing it on the shelf for half price, there’s no value in that, you’re devaluing your brand."
"Media would always ask for things for free and I said no, because that would devalue the brand. So everyone pays.”
Karen Gee on marriage:
“Andrew and I have been married for 22 years this year.”
“If you marry someone that has the same values as you, and you’re quite clear on that, you’ll get there.”
“We have the best marriage we’ve ever had now, we go on date nights and spend time with the kids.”
Karen Gee on children:
“They’re so amazing and they’re so easy and I’d have 5 more if they were going to be like that.”
“They’re my biggest joy in life. We are so close the 7 of us.”
“We do have a live-in housekeeper, but because we work some much we do that so we can chat and be with the children and I know that’s a privilege, but I can give my kids the time of day and they can see how hard we work to put them through private school.”
“We have family dinner on Friday night and we all have to be there. We go around the table and have the highlights of the week and talk about what’s coming up.”
So let’s boil all this down…
How would you define success for you as a female?
“Definitely happiness. Not money. Money comes if you’re happy and you’re doing something you love. So I think the emphasis has to be taken out of success being about money.”
“If I’m happy – everyone around me is happy and then all the money and all the toppings are going to come.”
As a successful Australian woman, what do you think sets you apart?
“I run my own race.”
“The moment I decided to run my own race and not copy what they’re doing that’s when I started my journey. In particular, my personal journey of discovering who I am and that I can actually do something.”
“You’ve got to put yourself in there, not just think it – you’ve got to do it.”